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Madama Butterfly - 221
Opéras and Musicals

An Opéra is primarily sung. In a musical, songs are interspersed with dialogue. In both cases, it is drama and words that drive the action. Both Opéra and musicals use librettos (the words) as their basis. In the case of Opéra, the singing tends to be continuous. In contrast, in musicals, much of the plot unravels through spoken scenes around individual songs, and there can often be more dancing in musicals. In Opéra, the singing is split between arias, recitatives[1] and bigger chorus numbers – see the glossary – and music is at the forefront, whereas in musical theatre, the words are key to the plot development.

Picture Credit: “Ópera La Boheme Reapresentação – Maykon Lammerhirt-8989.jpg” by Femusc. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Audiences have been watching and listening to Opéras in foreign languages for many years: an understanding of the specific language is often seen as secondary to the music itself. In many cases, there is now a text screen on which appears the words in the ‘home’ language. Some musicals are closer in style to Opéras than others: for example, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a musical often categorised as an Opéra because of its focus on the libretto and its limited speech[2].

Too often, Opéra is dismissed as outdated and excessive and is perceived to focus on extreme passions, sumptuous costumes, and ill-mannered divas. In fact, Opéras address the most fundamental and universal of human passions – love, death, jealousy, greed, revenge and power. The English word Opéra abbreviates the Italian phrase Opéra in musica (“work in music”).

What is Opéra?[3]
Opéra is a dramatic story told through song. It is considered by many to be the complete art form, combining all of the elements of art, words, music, drama and dance. The earliest Italian Opéras were called several things, such as “favola in musica” (fable in music) and “dramma per musica” (drama through music). This last title is very close to the dictionary definition and is the correct basis for any discussion about Opéra.

The unique thing in Opéra is the use of music to convey an entire story/plot – based on the feeling that music can communicate people’s reactions and emotions better than words (whether they are read or spoken) or pictures. Opéra takes any dramatic story and tries to make it more exciting and more believable with the help of music. Many famous stories have been made into Opéras, including Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Romeo and Juliet.

The idea of Opéra was in the melting pot many years before the first Opéra was written. Like many things, its beginnings can be traced to the ancient Greeks. They fused poetry and music, creating plays that incorporated song, spoken language and dance, accompanied by string or wind instruments. In the 1100s, the early Christian church set religious stories to music, a format known as liturgical drama.

Opéra, as we know it today, originated in Italy in the late 16th century – Jacopo Peri’s mostly lost Dafne was produced in Florence in 1598) and his Euridice of 1600 is generally regarded as the earliest surviving Opéra. Opéra’s first genius composer was Claudio Monteverdi, who wrote Orfeo in 1607 for an exclusive audience at the Duke of Mantua’s court.

The popularity of Opéra soon spread through Europe: Heinrich Schütz in Germany, Jean-Baptiste Lully in France, and Henry Purcell in England helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. In the 18th century, Italian Opéra still dominated most of Europe (except France), attracting foreign composers such as George Frideric Handel.

Opéra seria was the most prestigious form of Italian Opéra, until Christoph Willibald Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his “reform” Opéras in the 1760s.

The most renowned figure of late 18th century Opéra is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He began with Opéra seria but is most famous for his Italian comic Opéras, especially The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro), Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), and The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), landmarks in the German tradition.

The first third of the 19th century saw the high point of the bel canto style, with Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini all creating signature works of that style. It also saw the advent of Grand Opéra typified by Daniel Auber and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s works and Carl Maria von Weber’s introduction of German Romantische Oper (German Romantic Opéra).

The mid-to-late 19th century was a golden age of Opéra, led and dominated by Giuseppe Verdi in Italy and Richard Wagner in Germany. The popularity of Opéra continued through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French Opéra through to Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel Opératic traditions emerged in central and eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia. The 20th century saw many experiments with modern styles, such as atonality and serialism (Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg), neoclassicism (Igor Stravinsky), and minimalism (Philip Glass and John Adams). With the rise of recording technology, singers of the likes of Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas became known to wider audiences that went beyond the circle of Opéra fans. The advent of radio and television, meant Opéras were also performed on (and written for) these media.

Glossary of Opératic Terms[4]

  • Act – sections of the story similar to acts in a play.
  • Aria – a long accompanied song for a solo voice.
  • Banda -musicians who perform on the stage, in addition to those in the pit.
  • Baritonean adult male mid-range singing voice between tenor and bass.
  • Baroque – a style of European music of the 17th and 18th centuries, characterised by ornate detail. Prominent composers include Vivaldi, Bach and Handel.
  • Bass – the lowest adult male singing voice.
  • Bel Canto – a lyrical style of Opératic singing using a full, rich, broad tone and smooth phrasing.
  • Brava! Bravo! Bravi! – used during applause to commend the performers on stage: ‘Brava’ for female performers, ‘Bravo’ for male performers, ‘Bravi’ for the entire ensemble.
  • Buffaalso called a comic Opéra, especially one with characters drawn from everyday life.
  • Cadenza – a passage, usually at the end of a musical number, in which singers perform a few improvised measures of vocally showy music to personalise their characters and boast their virtuosity.
  • Capella – unaccompanied vocal music.
  • Castratoa male singer castrated in boyhood to retain a soprano or alto voice. The barbaric practice was banned in 1903. Now female singers often sing the castrati parts.
  • Choral – composed for or sung by a choir or chorus.
  • Choreographer – a person who creates dance compositions and plans dance movements for dances in Opéra.
  • Chorus is a large group of singers who perform with an orchestra or Opéra company.
  • Classical – music was written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1730 to 1820. Prominent Opéra composers include Mozart and Rossini.
  • Coloratura- elaborate ornamentation of a vocal melody, especially in Opératic singing.
  • Continuo – an accompaniment for dry or ‘secco’ recitative, written for a harpsichord or other keyboard instrument together with a bass instrument (e.g. a cello). It usually follows and comments upon the dramatic action.
  • Contralto – the lowest female singing voice.
  • Countertenor – the highest male adult singing voice (sometimes distinguished from the male alto voice by its strong, pure tone).
  • Da Capo Aria – a musical form that was prevalent in the 17th century. It is sung by a soloist with the accompaniment of the orchestra.  A da capo aria is composed of three sections.
  • Diction – the style of enunciation in singing.
  • Diva– a female Opéra star of rank or pretension.
  • Dramma Giocoso – a sub-category of Opéra buffa, means drama with jokes. It is a genre of Opéra that was common in the mid-18th century.
  • Duet – a performance by two singers.
  • Encore – a repeated performance at the end of a concert, as called for by the audience.
  • Falsetto – a heady, light voice familiar to the male voice.
  • Forte – to be performed loudly.
  • Gesamtkunstwerk – a term introduced by Wagner, meaning a ‘Total work of art ’ or all-embracing art form that uses all or many art forms.
  • Harmony – the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes (forms of harmony).
  • Heldentenor – a powerful tenor voice suitable for heroic roles in Opéra
  • Intermezzo – a short musical composition usually offered between the acts of a longer Opératic work.
  • Largo – slow speed.
  • Legato – a smooth, connected style of singing and playing.
  • Leitmotiv – ‘light motif’; a short thematic musical passage representing a character or situation in a musical drama.
  • Libretto – the sung text of an Opéra.
  • Mezzo-Soprano a female singer with a voice, pitched between soprano and contralto.
  • Minimalism an avant-garde style of music, characterised by the repetition of very short phrases which change gradually, producing a hypnotic effect.
  • Obbligato – in Western classical music, obbligato usually describes a musical line that is in some way indispensable in performance. Its opposite is the marking ad libitum.
  • Operetta is a short Opéra, usually on a light or humorous theme and typically spoken dialogue. Gilbert & Sullivan is an example.
  • Opéra Ballet – a genre of French Baroque lyric theatre that was most popular during the 18th century, combining elements of Opéra and ballet, “that grew out of the ballets à entrées of the early 17th century”.
  • Opéra Bouffe – a genre of late 19th-century French operetta, closely associated with Jacques Offenbach, who produced many of them at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens that gave its name to the form.
  • Opéra Bouffon – the French term for the Italian genre of Opéra buffa (comic Opéra) performed in 18th-century France, either in the original language or in French translation. It was also applied to original French Opéras comiques having Italianate or near-farcical plots. It is sometimes confused with the French Opéra comique and Opéra bouff.
  • Opéra Buffa – see Opéra bouffon.
  • Opéra Comique – a genre of French Opéra that contains spoken dialogue and arias. It emerged from the popular Opéras comiques en vaudevilles of the Fair Theatres of St Germain and St Laurent (and to a lesser extent the Comédie-Italienne), which combined existing popular tunes with spoken sections. Associated with the Paris theatre of the same name, Opéra comique is not necessarily comical or shallow – Carmen, perhaps the most famous Opéra comique, is a tragedy.
  • Opéra Féerie – a French genre of Opéra or opéra-ballet, often with elements of magic in their stories. Popular in the 18th century, from the time of Jean-Philippe Rameau onwards, the form reached its culmination with works such as La belle au bois dormant by Michele Carafa and Cendrillon by Nicolas Isouard at the beginning of the 19th century.
  • Opéra House – an Opéra house is a theatre building used for performances of Opéra. It usually includes a stage, an orchestra pit, audience seating, and backstage facilities for costumes and building sets. While some venues are constructed specifically for Opéras, other Opéra houses are part of larger performing arts centres.
  • Oratorioa musical composition for chorus, orchestra and soloists whose text is usually religious, serious or philosophical.
  • Ornamentation – decorative notes that enhance a melodic line, often when it is repeated.
  • Overture – an orchestral piece at the beginning of an Opéra that often references musical ideas that the audience will hear throughout the Opéra.
  • Prelude – an introductory piece of music, most commonly an orchestral opening to an act of an Opéra.
  • Prima Donna – ‘first lady’ – the female lead in an Opéra cast.
  • Proscenium – the part of the stage between the curtain and the orchestra pit.
  • Queen of the Night – is one of the most famous characters in Opéra.  A principal role in the 1791 Mozart Opéra The Magic Flute who sings a very recognisable aria.
  • Range – the distance from the lowest to the highest pitch of an instrument or a singer.
  • Recitative – a rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflexions of speech and that is used for dialogue and narrative in Opéras.
  • Repertoire – the stock of Opéras that a company or a performer is prepared to perform.
  • Repetiteur – a tutor or coach of musicians, especially Opéra singers.
  • Romantic – an era of Western classical music that dates from 1780 to 1910. Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky are prominent Opéra composers from this era.
  • Seria – an Opéra on a serious, usually classical or mythological theme.
  • Singspiel – means “song play”, it was a popular form of theatre, mixing spoken drama with song, in 18th century Germany – including The Magic Flute by Mozart.
  • Soprano – the highest female singing voice.
  • Spinto – “pushed”; a voice is ‘pushed’ toward another, i.e., a lyrico spinto is a lyric soprano that can lean toward a heavier, dramatic quality.
  • Staccato – “clipped”; short, clipped, rapid articulation. The opposite of legato.
  • Surtitles/Supertitles – a caption projected on a screen above the stage in an Opéra, showing the Opéra’s libretto (the text being sung).[5]
  • Tenor – The highest natural adult male singing voice between baritone and alto or countertenor.
  • Tessitura(Italian: “texture”), the general range of pitches found in a melody or vocal part.
  • Trill the very rapid alternation of pitch between two adjacent notes, used as a virtuosic vocal effect.
  • Toi Toi Toi – originally an idiom used to ward off a spell or hex. Nowadays, people say this before an Opéra performance instead of saying ‘good luck’. Similar to ‘break a leg’ in theatre.
  • Verismo – “truth”, a theatrical style in the late 1800s that depicted ordinary, everyday characters in melodramatic situations. Puccini’s Il Trittico, a triptych, includes the ‘verismo’ melodramas Il tabarro (The Cloak) and Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica).
  • Vibrato – a rapid, slight and gentle variation in pitch in singing or playing some musical instruments, producing a stronger, warmer or richer tone.
  • Yodelling – a form of singing or calling marked by rapid alternation between the normal voice and falsetto that originated in Austro-Bavarian culture. Yodelling can be heard in some works by Richard Strauss.
  • Zarzuela – Zarzuela is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating Opératic and popular songs, as well as dance.

A Selection of Books on Opéra

  • The Faber Pocket Guide to Opéra, by Rupert Christiansen.
  • Opéra For Dummies by David Pogue and Scott Speck. 
  • The New Kobbe’s Opéra Book by C.W. Kobbe/Anthony Peattie and the Earl of Harewood.
  • The Dictionary of the Opéra by Charles Osborne.
  • Opéra 101: A Complete Guide To Learning And Loving Opéra by Fred Plotkin. 
  • A Night at the Opéra: An Irreverent Guide to The Plots, The Singers, The Composers, The Recordings by Sir Denis Forman. 
  • 100 Great Opéras and Their Stories: Act-By-Act Synopses, by Henry W. Simon. 
  • Opéra (DK Eyewitness Companion Guide), by Alan Riding and Leslie Dunton-Downer.
  • A History of Opéra: The Last Four Hundred Years, by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker.
  • The Opéra Lover’s Companion, by Charles Osborne. 
  • The Penguin Concise Guide to Opéra (Penguin reference books), by Amanda Holden.
  • Great Opéras: A Guide to 25 of the World’s Finest Musical Experiences, by Michael Steen

An Opératic Selection

Picture Credit: “La Bohème, 2013: Cast A” by Canadian Opera is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are about 1,000 Opéras to choose from – do you have a favourite? Here is an outline of some well-known and lesser-known Opéras, taken at random.

  • La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini, is perhaps the Opéra that everyone has heard about and it has secured its place in the Opératic ‘hall of fame’. The music is what makes its great story a masterpiece and one of the most popular Opéras of all time. It starts on a cold Christmas night in bohemian Paris. The near-destitute artist Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to keep warm by feeding the stove with pages from Rodolfo’s latest drama. They are soon joined by their roommates—Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, who brings food, fuel, and money he has collected from an eccentric nobleman. Then, a knock at the door starts a chain reaction: Mimì stands there searching for candlelight and love is sparked that changes their lives forever. But can this love survive the harsh winter?
  • Don Pasquale is an Opéra buffa, or comic Opéra, by Gaetano Donizetti, in three acts with an Italian libretto completed largely by Giovanni Ruffini as well as the composer. The music is suggestive of a comic Opéra; bright and lively, it starts with plenty of percussion and brass instruments. After a while, the ambience changes to suggesting a party, and the overture ends with a finale. The Opéra was first performed in January 1843 by the Théâtre-Italien at the Salle Ventadour in Paris, with great success. It is generally regarded as the high point of the 19th century Opéra buffa tradition and, in fact, marking its ending.
  • Fidelio was initially titled Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love). It is Beethoven’s only Opéra. With some spoken dialogue, the libretto tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio”, rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. It is a story of personal sacrifice, heroism, and eventual triumph. Notable moments in the Opéra include the “Prisoners’ Chorus” – an ode to freedom sung by a chorus of political prisoners, Florestan’s vision of Leonore, which comes as an angel to rescue him, and the scene itself in which the rescue finally takes place. The finale celebrates Leonore’s bravery with alternating contributions of soloists and chorus.
  • The Rake’s Progress, by Igor Stravinsky, is an English-language Opéra in three acts and an epilogue. The libretto, written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, is based loosely on the eight paintings and engravings of William Hogarth, seen by Stravinsky at a Chicago exhibition. The story concerns the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, who deserts Anne Trulove for the delights of London in the company of Nick Shadow, who turns out to be the Devil. Several misadventures later, all initiated by the devious Shadow, Tom ends up in Bedlam, a hospital for the insane then situated in London. The moral in this tale is: “For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.”
  • Rigoletto was written by Giuseppe Verdi. Few would argue that it is wonderful entertainment, as well as a daring attack on aristocratic privilege, a tender love story, and an impassioned appeal on behalf of the disadvantaged, all set to music of such wealth and beauty that, together with its sister Opéras La Traviata and Il Trovatore, it has almost defined Italian Opéra for 150 years. The Opéra is in three acts. The Italian libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave based on the 1832 play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo.
  • La Traviata is the story of the tragic love between the courtesan Violetta and the romantic Alfredo Germont. It features one of the most iconic, romantic and tragic scores of all time. Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece contrasts spectacular party scenes with tender, intimate moments. Played out against the hypocrisy of upper-class fashionable society, Alfredo and Violetta’s love threatens to bring shame on his family. When his father directly appeals to Violetta to relinquish her one chance of happiness, she submits and her act of self-sacrifice leads to her paying the ultimate price. Sad but beautiful.
  • Carmen is an Opéra in four acts by French composer Georges Bizet. The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. Carmen is one of the most popular and frequently performed Opéras – the Habanera from act 1 and the Toreador Song from act 2 are among the best known of all Opératic arias. The Opéra is set in Seville, Spain, in the early 1800s. It deals with the love and jealousy of Don José, who is lured away from his duty as a soldier and his beloved Micaëla by the gypsy factory-girl Carmen. José allows her to escape from custody but later makes clear her love preference for a bull-fighter called Escamillo. The last act, outside the bull-ring in Seville, sees Escamillo to the arena, accompanied by Carmen, there stabbed to death by Don José, who has been awaiting her arrival.
  • The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) by Wofgang Amadeus Mozart is undoubtedly full of magic plus some revealing Masonic elements. The Opéra takes the form of a Singspiel (which includes singing and spoken dialogue). Tamino, a prince lost in a foreign land, is being pursued by an enormous monster. He is rescued by three mysterious ladies, who kill the monster and give Tamino a picture of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, and Tamino falls in love. He learns that Pamina has been captured by the powerful and evil Sarastro, and Tamino vows to rescue her but soon discovers that nothing is quite as it first appears.
  • The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), is an Opéra in four acts by Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini. The story follows the escapades of a talented barber (Figaro) as he assists a Spanish nobleman (Count Almaviva) in prising the apple of his eye (the beautiful Rosina) away from her guardian, the lecherous Dr Bartolo. The Opéra is full of great tunes that are all incredibly familiar, including the fast, jaunty overture and Figaro’s famous aria, ‘Make way for the servant who does everything’ (‘Largo al factotum’).
  • The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) was written by Wofgang Amadeus Mozart. Figaro, servant to Count Almaviva, is about to marry Susanna, the Countess’s maid. Susanna tells Figaro that the Count is lusting after her. Figaro vows to thwart the Count’s plans. The Count cunningly attempts a tryst with Susanna. It gets more and more complicated, but in the end, the Count declares his love for Susanna, who is really the Countess, while Figaro tells the Countess, who is really Susanna, about the tryst. But, Susanna forgets to disguise her voice, and Figaro works out it is she under the Countess’s cloak. One thing leads to another, with many twists and turns on the way.
  • Madama Butterfly (in Italian), by Giacomo Puccini, is one of Opéra’s most enduring tales of unrequited love. Puccini’s poignant score follows the tragic tale of a young Japanese girl who falls in love with US naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton. He has paid for an arranged marriage to the 15-year-old geisha, Cio-Cio-San, known as Madam Butterfly. She falls in love, converts to Christianity and is renounced by her family. But Pinkerton is unmoved and returns to his homeland. Cio-Cio-San gives birth to a son by Pinkerton. Pinkerton does eventually return with Kate, his American wife, Kate, wishing to adopt his son – but it is too late: the bereft Cio-Cio-San has just committed suicide.
  • Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa,  is a political thriller set in Rome in June 1800. It was the time of the Napoleonic wars and a period of great political unrest). The action takes place over less than 24 hours and centres around three main characters – Rome’s diva Floria Tosca, her lover Mario Cavaradossi (a painter and republican) and the corrupt Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. The lecherous Baron has long lusted after Floria, and when he suspects Cavaradossi of assisting an escaped political prisoner, seizes the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He will manipulate Tosca into revealing the prisoner’s hiding place and Cavaradossi’s involvement in the deed, and have her for himself. When Cavaradossi is captured, Scarpia offers Tosca a horrific bargain – she must give herself to Scarpia, or her lover is killed… what a dilemma. Who will she choose, and who will survive?

Picture Credit: “Tosca 4” by Canadian Opera is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading

Madama Butterfly - 221
Picture Credit: “Madama Butterfly – 221” by Sinfómano is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

  1. explains: recitative is a style of monody (accompanied solo song) that emphasises and indeed imitates the rhythms and accents of spoken language, rather than melody or musical motives. Modelled on oratory, recitative developed in the late 1500s in opposition to the polyphonic, or many-voiced, style of 16th century choral music. The earliest operas, such as Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), consisted almost entirely of recitativo arioso, a lyric form of recitative intended to communicate the emotion of the text. Source:
  2. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was Stephen Sondheim’s tenth Broadway production. It is generally considered his masterpiece, a melodic and theatrically bold work that’s been produced in theatres large and small and numerous opera houses. The original 1979 Broadway production won eight Tony Awards including recognition as the season’s best musical. It has had numerous varied revivals, as well as a 2007 cinematic rendition by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney. Source:
  3. Text Attribution and Acknowledgement:
  4. Sources: (1) (2) (4)

    (5) (6)

  5. A surtitle is a translation of a segment of the libretto or other text or sometimes a brief summary of the plot projected onto a screen above the stage during a performance of an opera or other similar performance sung in a foreign language; a supertitle while a subtitle is a heading below or after a title. Source:

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